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C.S. Morrissey – Global Theatre

'Digital distributism' offers social justice a high-tech upgrade

Voices Oct 27, 2017

Ed Unitsky depicts the negative consequences of digital industrialism in his artworks created for Static, Dave Kerzner’s new album of music. (Courtesy DaveKerzner.com) 

How can we avoid being slaves to our digital devices? Life without them is almost inconceivable.

At most, we will go offline for a special trip, perhaps deep into the wilderness. Or else do digital fasting, even abstinence, during Lent.

These are all useful exercises in empowering ourselves to retake control of our attention. But our digital devices have been purposefully designed to distract us and colonize our attention. That’s why it takes real effort to resist their pull.

The exceptional nature, and the limited scope, either of a wilderness vacation or of a digital fast, doesn’t really address the main challenge we have before us.

The main challenge is social. Ironically, social media has become a social problem. Look around for an hour, without touching your own phone. See what people are doing. They have planted computer chips into their bodies. Watch how the chips control them.

Because they have planted the chip in the palm of their hand, they think they are in control. But are they really?

Do you feel in control? Or is your attention very easily swept away? You have been swiping up and down on your phone, tapping and clicking for a while now, and you have forgotten what it was, minutes ago, you wanted to look up on your phone.

You had a reason for picking up your phone, but then the phone itself caused you to forget it.

You had a reason for picking up your phone, but then the phone itself caused you to forget it.

The way our brains respond to digital media resembles the mental reveries brought on by drug use. One rabbit trail leads to another, with an overall aimlessness. An acute lack of purpose is the inevitable result when we constantly give in to the temptations of immediate gratification.

That’s why Pope Francis observed, in his encyclical Laudato Si’ (On Care for Our Common Home), “Life gradually becomes a surrender to situations conditioned by technology, itself viewed as the principal key to the meaning of existence. In the concrete situation confronting us, there are a number of symptoms which point to what is wrong, such as environmental degradation, anxiety, a loss of the purpose of life and of community living,” (LS 110).

What kind of society do we want to live in? If we don’t have a clear answer to this question, then other people will be making the decisions for us.

The default settings of our favorite technologies are already making decisions for us. But Pope Francis encourages us to retake control. He encourages us to use technology “at the service of another type of progress, one which is healthier, more human, more social, more integral,” (LS 112).

The Pope gives illustrations of healthier uses of technology.

The Pope gives illustrations of healthier uses of technology: “for example, when cooperatives of small producers adopt less polluting means of production, and opt for a non-consumerist model of life, recreation and community. Or when technology is directed primarily to resolving people’s concrete problems, truly helping them live with more dignity and less suffering,” (LS 112).

The media theorist Douglas Rushkoff supplies additional examples in his book Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus. Rushkoff is a critic of companies that seek to extract maximum profit growth. Their “platform monopolies” have created a “digital industrialism” which is harming both the land and labour.

Citing the Pope, Rushkoff instead recommends a “digital distributism” as the new economy we need to cultivate mindfully, to replace globalization’s “digital industrialism.”

Within that old shell of technocratic business practices, we can still use digital tools, but to develop better ways of doing business. Those ways won’t focus solely on profits, but also build labour and the environment into the business model, perhaps through more distributed ownership, participation, and profit sharing.

In The Outline of Sanity, G.K. Chesterton noted the problem with capitalism: “The practical tendency of all trade and business today is towards big commercial combinations, often more imperial, more impersonal, more international than many a communist commonwealth.” As for communism, it “only reforms the pickpocket by forbidding pockets.”

Mindful of the problems with both capitalism and socialism, distributism seeks only to combine the good features of each: ownership is a self-evident good, but it should be widely distributed.

The original distributists like Chesterton imagined this in an agrarian way, with everyone a small landowner. But today’s digital technologies offer a more realistic and relevant opportunity. As Pope Francis has realized, they can be used to promote sharing and to innovate in peer-to-peer resources.

You can become master of your phone, if you use digital distributism as a tool for social justice. Otherwise the default setting of digital industrialism, to serve capital, will continue to harm humans and the environment.